What action does God take in Matthew 4:12-23 toward others?
In this one passage of Scripture, Jesus performs many actions. Right away in verse 12 Jesus withdrew to Galilee. Far from being an insignificant detail, Jesus withdrew in order to fulfill an epoch-turning prophecy, signaling the arrival of the kingdom (link to summary blog post). In fulfillment of this he also dwells in Capernaum in verse 13. Jesus is also seen walking in verse 18. God the Son fulfills prophecy with actions that almost no one noticed. Just as with the burning bush, which could easily have been passed by, major fulfillment of prophecy happens in the most subtle ways. That is the character of God, as reflected in his actions. He is hardly ever obvious, and we should not expect him to be so in our own lives.
There are several actions in which Jesus takes towards others. We see Jesus preaching (vs. 17), calling to James and John (vs. 21), teaching, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing (vs. 23). These show that it is the nature of God to interact personally, individually, directly. This is not a God who saves his best work for big crowds.
What action does God call me to take toward God? Toward others?
There are two very clear commands that Jesus gives in this passage of Scripture.
In verse 19, Jesus tells Simon and Andrew to “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” In the scripture from John last week, disciples asked to followed Jesus. But here Jesus commands them to follow him. There is a world of difference between us following Jesus, and Jesus calling us to follow him. Our own interest is never enough to sustain discipleship. We do well to ask him to call us. This is a prayer he will always answer, not only for the twelve (as can be seen in Luke 9:57-62), but for us, too. Only his call to discipleship can sustain us.
Right before that, Jesus preaches, “repent” in verse 17. This message of repentance was given throughout Galilee as he taught in the synagogues (vs. 23). Jesus command to repent is not the first time we see this in the gospel of Matthew, though. John the Baptist gives the exact same command in the wilderness of Judea in Matthew 3:1. The difference is that this time the call is not given by the messenger who prepares the way for the king but instead by the king himself, after the messenger has been silenced.
That same message would be continued by the disciples. Jesus sent them out two by two in Mark 6:1-13, and in verse 12 it says that their message was “that people should repent.” Peter continues this same message even after Jesus’ death and resurrection saying,
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
Finally, Jesus himself is still giving the same message. In Revelation 3:19, he tells the church of Laodicea to be zealous and repent.
What actions did I take? Or, what actions will I take?
It might be tempting to rush through the application of this Scripture thinking that Christ’s commands to repent and follow only apply to new Christians or non-Christians.
But repentance should not be a one-time act. Instead, repentance is actually the Christian life! The great Christian reformer Martin Luther put it this way: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Often in the lives of modern day believers, confession and repentance are relegated to private acts of prayer, only between the believer and God. But biblically we are called to confess and repent openly, in the presence of others who are praying for us and keeping us accountable. James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other.” Repentance is a complete change in direction, understanding, and living. If we can do that privately, it’s likely not true repentance, or at least it’s pretty shallow! Likely, the thing holding us back is pride—and we need to repent of that, too.
Our family has instituted an almost daily family time of confession and repentance. We share our sins with each other and we pray to God in front of each other and ask for forgiveness. One of my family members (even one of the children) will then end our time with an assurance of forgiveness such as 1 John 1:8-9, which says,
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Repentance is something we should never outgrow. Just ask the church of Laodicea!